POLITICS

Nova Scotia cabinet minister withdraws Crown land purchase due to 'optics'

08/29/2013 10:32 EDT | Updated 10/29/2013 05:12 EDT
HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's natural resources minister has withdrawn his application to buy a strip of Crown land, saying Thursday the bid wasn't worth the negative attention it generated.

Charlie Parker said his change of heart came after a growing public backlash this week that saw newspaper editorials and opposition parties slam the transaction.

"I guess when I saw the editorial and the cartoon yesterday in the (Halifax Chronicle) Herald, it's not everyday you get both of those," Parker said.

"The media attention has certainly been a factor here and I just think it's the right thing to do at this point in time."

He said although he had recused himself from the file and cleared the transaction with the province's conflict of interest commissioner, he decided with his wife that it would be best not to proceed with the bid, given the controversy.

"I guess it's perception, it's optics," Parker said following a cabinet meeting in Halifax.

"As minister I have a different perception than ordinary landowners, and in order to not hold it up for them I'm withdrawing so their applications can go forward."

Parker was planning to buy a 0.2-hectare strip of riverfront property that was next door to a home he owns in Pictou County.

"It's not the end of the world if I don't have it," Parker said. "It's a very steep bank at the end of the property."

Rules posted on the Natural Resources Department website say the government doesn't put Crown land up for sale as general policy because of the limited amount of Crown land available and existing commitments on such land, such as parks and forestry licences. There are exceptions that allow for sales to municipalities or community groups for public benefit, sales to support economic activity and sales to alleviate undue hardship where it is in the province's best interest.

Crown land is not sold for speculative purposes or for residential or cottage lots, the rules say, and anyone looking to buy Crown land must be able to show that all other reasonable alternatives have been explored.

The Natural Resources Department said officials concluded Parker's application was valid as the land was previously expropriated and it would have alleviated an undue hardship that was created when the riverfront property was taken over by the province.

Both the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives said the sale, which had not been approved by cabinet, should never have made it through the Natural Resources Department because it broke rules governing Crown land transactions and had the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Earlier in the week, Premier Darrell Dexter defended the sale, saying the transaction was not unusual and Parker was not being treated any differently from private citizens who have previously bought Crown land. Dexter said Thursday he would leave it to Parker to explain why he pulled his application.

Parker said neither Dexter nor the premier's office directed him to withdraw the bid.

Alfie MacLeod, the Tory natural resources critic, said Parker's decision doesn't prevent him from applying for that Crown land in the future, something he believes the cabinet minister shouldn't be allowed to do.

Parker wouldn't say whether he would make try to buy the land in the future, saying that would have to be a family decision.